Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney was taking a new approach to campaigning Friday, starting a bus trip across six key states to target undecided voters living outside America's big cities. To hear his advisers tell it, he'll be visiting the towns President Barack Obama forgot - but in states the president won four years ago.
The former Massachusetts governor will continue his focus on the struggling economy as he rolls through more than a dozen small cities and towns over five days on his “Every Town Counts” tour. It begins in New Hampshire on Friday and continues to the key Midwestern states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.
In speech excerpts released by his campaign, Romney says the Obama administration is smothering “small-town dreams.” He promises to scrap Obama's health care law, approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada and go after China for its trade policies.
His aides say Romney will stop in the kinds of places that are hurting because of the bad economy.
“Some people will call this the back roads of America. What he believes, really, is that this is the backbone of America - this is where folks, as I said, work really hard and are really struggling,” senior adviser Russ Schriefer told reporters Friday.
It's a new style for Romney, who kept a limited public schedule over the past two months, preferring to spend much of his time fundraising for what promises to be the most expensive presidential election ever.
Both campaigns expect Romney to win the majority of voters in rural small towns, which are often reliably Republican, but Obama's team is trying to keep the margin as narrow as it was in 2008, when he lost rural voters by just 8 percentage points to John McCain.
“Romney's going to win the rurals. The question is by how much,” said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who advised McCain's rural outreach. “If Romney cannot boost rural turnout, he's going to lose. If Mitt Romney's going to win the White House, it will be the rural vote that pushes him over the top.”
Even Obama's top aides acknowledge the hurdle he faces with these voters.
“Democrats have for some time been challenged in how they communicate directly with rural America,” Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, said recently.
And yet the fight for these voters is close. The most recent Associated Press-GfK poll of voters who identified as living in a rural area backed Romney 47 percent to Obama's 45 percent.
Rural voters tend to be more socially conservative, more religious and more focused on what strategists call the core values of a candidate than voters who live in urban or suburban regions. They also tend to be overrepresented in the military; the White House says rural America represents 17 percent of the country's population but accounts for 44 percent of those in uniform.
Romney hasn't engaged in this kind of campaigning since the early days of the Republican primary, when he visited diners and coffee shops across Iowa and New Hampshire. The millionaire sometimes ran into trouble in the more unpredictable environments. Some offhand statements reflecting his wealth were criticized as showing his detachment from average voters.
By starting in New Hampshire, Romney returns to the state where he began his bid for the Republican nomination. The state voted for Obama in 2008.
Romney plans three stops in Pennsylvania's conservative midsection on Saturday.
And on Sunday, Romney returns to Ohio, where he and Obama faced off Thursday with competing speeches on the state of the U.S. economy.
Obama asked Americans to buy into his vision for four more years or face a return to the recession-era “mistakes of the past.”
Romney described Obama's administration as the very “enemy” of people who create jobs.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio, which is key to the election hopes of both candidates. With less than five months remaining until the Nov. 6 election, they are virtually tied in the polls.
After Ohio, Romney will go on to Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker recently survived a rare recall election notable for the large amount of money put into the fight by supporters outside the state. Walker's win was seen as a boost for the conservative tea party movement, and Republicans, in a struggle that ended up focusing on economic issues.
Romney finishes with visits to Iowa and Michigan, the state where he was born and raised and where his father, George Romney, served as governor. - Sapa-AP